Vail Daily column: Questions and answers
November 1, 2016
Even though I'm prohibited from campaigning for or against anything on the ballot in my professional role, it is my responsibility to answer questions about the Eagle County Schools ballot measures (3A and 3B). Since some of the same questions keep coming up, I thought I'd address them here to ensure the answers are clear as we round the corner to Election Day.
Question 1: Is recruiting and retaining staff a problem for Eagle County Schools and how do these proposals address it?
Yes, recruiting and retaining staff are big issues for our schools, just as they are issues for practically every other business operating in our valley. We recruit across the country and even internationally to fill our teaching positions. About a quarter of those we offer jobs to turn us down once they do the math on compensation vs. cost of living in Eagle County.
Teacher turnover (the number of teachers we lose annually) has soared well above state and national averages for decades. This past year, we hung on to more of our teachers than ever before. This is a positive data point — but one year does not make a trend. I attribute this to an intentional focus on creating a positive and supportive work environment for employees and our employee satisfaction surveys back that up.
Proposal 3A contains specific language about using those funds to "recruit and retain quality teachers and staff." This means better pay for our new recruits, our current teachers and other employees.
Question 2: Are there any guarantees that funds would go to teachers and staff?
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Yes. Proposal 3A contains language in the ballot question that the funds are to be used to "recruit and retain quality teachers and staff."
The Board of Education passed a resolution in June that locked in fully 50 percent of the funds to go toward staff compensation and another 22 percent to go toward reducing class size and restoring programs such as art, music, physical education and counseling.
Question 3: Will any of the 3A money go to senior district administration?
No. The ballot language in question 3A specifically excludes the district's senior administration (the superintendent and other district leadership) from getting any of those funds.
Question 4: Where did the dollar amounts for question 3A ($8 million annually) and 3B ($144 million for construction) come from?
For question 3A, we first looked at the cuts the district had absorbed over the past few years (a cumulative $47 million). Then, we considered what the district's maximum request under law would be, which is a little over $10 million annually. This maximum amount would put us on equal footing with places such as Aspen, Boulder and Summit County in terms of local mill levy revenues. After conducting focus groups and looking at polling data, we backed the 3A request down to $8 million annually, which while not achieving the maximum, would still make a substantial positive impact.
For question 3B, we completed a facilities master planning process, which looked at student growth and existing building issues in detail. We have experienced consistent student population growth, causing some schools to approach or exceed capacity. The district also put off building upkeep during recession-era cuts and we took into account the cumulative effect that has had on all schools. The facilities master plan identified almost $200 million in necessary projects. Again, after hearing from focus groups and reviewing polling data, we "value-engineered" the proposal to focus on the most urgent issues — student over-crowding, safety and security, and making sure all our buildings were equitable in quality. Through this, we cut the proposal to $144 million for 3B.
Question 5: Wouldn't the district have all the money it needs if it paid the superintendent (and senior district administrators) less?
No. The main issue with this is one of scale. Consider that giving our employees a raise that keeps up with inflation (at say 3 percent) has a cost of $1.2 million. The proposed construction and renovations for the 3rd Street campus in Eagle will cost nearly $60 million dollars alone.
Even if the district got a superintendent whose salary was half of mine, it would not generate enough funds to make a dent compared to the need. Eagle County Schools spends less on district administration than other similarly sized organizations and our administrators make less than their counterparts in comparable districts.
Economizing further on district and school leadership would bring its own set of challenges and problems, but the politics behind this question are the reason 3A specifically says the funds can't be used for senior district administration. As 3B funds are earmarked for construction purposes, they can't be used for that purpose either.
Question 6: What's the most significant downside of passing 3A and 3B?
Even though property taxes in Eagle County are relatively modest and would remain so should both measures pass, it is a property tax increase.
Question 7: What happens if 3A and 3B don't pass?
In the short term, things will be fine. We have a budget for the current year and are living within it.
For staff, based on the last revenue estimates from the state, we may well be looking at pay freezes and possibly even staffing cuts for next year. Status quo pay and staffing levels will be our best-case scenario.
On the capital side, we will immediately have over-crowding issues in Eagle and Gypsum. This will require the placement of trailer classrooms on those campuses. The number of trailers will increase over time to accommodate student growth.
We will also have to make some tough trade-offs between teachers and things like aging computers, worn-out buses, and failing HVAC systems. Tough choices with significant downsides to every option will be the norm.
However, school property taxes will remain consistent.
Whatever the outcome, I encourage everyone to participate and be engaged in the process this year. Local questions can have a big impact — win or lose.
Also, I'd encourage everyone to keep their dignity and civility as we enter these last few days. Whatever the outcome of the election, we will need to live and work here together on the other side. We are all neighbors and this valley is our home.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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